Guitar Queen, Hoodoo Lady and Songster
Lizzie Douglas was born on June 3, 1897, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her parents were Abe and Gertrude Douglas and she was the eldest of 13 children. Her parents nicknamed her Kid when she was very young, She disliked the name Lizzie and carried that nickname with her into adulthood.
When she was seven years old the family moved to Mississippi. When she was eight she received a guitar as a Christmas gift. Her musical career began. She learned to master that guitar pretty well by the age of eleven but mastery of the banjo proceeded that when she was just ten. She began to play at parties and was beginning to be known in some circles. The girl had talent! Sometimes she played all night and then hit the fields back at the farm by dawn.
At the tender age of 13, she ran away from home. They were now living in Tennessee after the death of her mother. She began to play on street corners and this continued through her teenage years. Her performances, which were notable, led to a tour of the South with Ringling Brothers Circus from 1916 to 1920. When this gig was done, she returned to Beale Street where the blues scene was thriving. She made her living by playing guitar and singing.
In 1929 she began to perform with her husband, Joe McCoy. They were good! A scout from Columbia Records heard them outside of a barber shop where they were performing for change. They were scooped and went to New York City where Columbia signed them and gave them the names Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie. Over the next few years the couple performed regularly and released a series of records for Columbia, performing as a duet until 1934. In 1935 they signed on with Decca Records. She and Joe divorced that year.
Now, on her own again and well established in Chicago, she worked for the record producer and talent scout, Lester Melrose. She stretched a little and began to experiment with different styles and sounds, recording may cuts for Bluebird Records. She also toured extensively, mostly in the South.
She had it all: stellar guitar chops, a powerful voice, a huge repertoire including many original, signature songs and a stage presence simultaneously glamorous, bawdy and tough. Minnie helped form the roots of electric Chicago blues, as well as R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, long before she plugged in. Her unique storytelling style of songwriting gained her many fans and admirers. She was also a master finger style guitar player.
In 1938 she joined forces with her ex husband Kansas Joe’s brother, Charlie McCoy, who played mandolin. It was around this time she married the guitarist and singer Ernest Lawlars, known as Little Son Joe. The following year they began to record together with her husband adding a more rhythmic backing to her guitar. They recorded together through the 40’s. By 1941 Minnie had begun playing the electric guitar and it was this year that she recorded her biggest hit, “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” During the 1940’s Minnie and her husband played together and separately in many of the better known night clubs and music halls in Chicago and Indiana.
Throughout her career Minnie was always known as an independent woman and polished professional who knew how to take care of herself. She always appeared feminine and lady like. She wore quality clothing and jewelry. However, she was not shy when it was necessary to take on a fight. According to the blues musician, Johnny Shines, "Any men fool with her she'd go for them right away. She didn't take no foolishness off them. Guitar, pocket knife, pistol, anything she get her hand on she'd use it.” Most of her music was autobiographical and she expressed a lot of her personal life through her music. She was believed to have been married three times, although no marriage certificates have been found on record.
Minnie continued to record well into the 1950’s. but with the decline of her health and public interest in her music, she retired from performing and returned to Memphis. After her death, Bonnie Raitt erected a headstone for her grave and it was inscribed: Lizzie “Kid” Douglas Lawlers aka Memphis Minnie. There is an inscription on the back and it reads: The hundreds of sides Minnie recorded are the perfect material to teach us about the blues. For the blues are at once general, and particular, speaking for millions, but in a highly singular, individual voice. Listening to Minnie's songs we hear her fantasies, her dreams, her desires, but we will hear them as if they were our own.
Her songs have been recorded by women such as Big Mama Thornton, Lucinda Williams, and Maria Muldaur, as well as by men, including Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Western swing pioneer Milton Brown.